Jim is an Associate Editor at Wonkhe

Given that she wasn’t, as far as I know, arrested at the Trafalgar Square anti-vaxx rally for claiming that the coronavirus vaccine is a political tool to change people’s DNA, the government’s position on struck-off nurse Kate Shemirani speaking at a debate on campus in September is fun to workshop.

She mustn’t be no platformed – legal free speech is to be debated, and sunshine is the best disinfectant. But presumably according to Boris Johnson, to actually appear in a lecture theatre, she’ll have to get the vaccine. Go figure.

That said – dangerous firm prediction klaxon – I don’t think that vaccine passports for university lectures and halls are actually going to happen.

I think there’s a decent chance that there will be a further fall off in case numbers  (even if there’s also a decent chance that mass Freshers migration, new household formation and hotel-style halls mean we’ll see them shoot up again) and that the current nudge-bluffs on everything from football to nightclubs and from halls to lectures will have some (enough) impact.

It’s nevertheless been grimly amusing watching the sector try to say nothing on the whole plan, having marched several VCs out to publicly call for a “too little too late” return to campus back in May. “You’ll have to get a vaccine for in-person lectures”, says the Sunday Times. “What in-person lectures”, mutter the blended learning evangelists.

The “say nothing about something” strategy probably reached its peak when Universities UK, the University Alliance, Universities Wales, Universities Scotland, GuildHE, the Russell Group, Independent HE and MillionPlus all put a joint letter out about vaccines that appeared on first glance to have less words than signatories – although given the fluctuating UCU-trolley position over the previous week, maybe sometimes the less said the better:

To be fair, the positions aren’t necessarily contradictory – it looks like the UCU position is “if they’re not vaxxed in sufficient numbers, we won’t teach in person” whereas the No.10 position seems to be “nae bother, we’ll boot the unvaxxed out then”. I think I’m with No.10 on balance.

On the Today programme, asked whether vaccination will be advisory or compulsory for students returning to halls of residence in September, Dominic Raab said:

We will make sure university students have advanced warning, of course we are going to be mindful of that.”

OK, but when?

When we come to the crunch, these decisions will be taken in September.”

So when he says “advance” he doesn’t mean sufficiently in “advance” that students could then go and get their two jabs with appropriate spacing. As ever – tricky decision? Put it off, something will turn up.

Incredible uptake

Back in early June when we started to offer the Covid-19 vaccine to “young people”, a genre of commentary emerged that was indignant about warnings on vaccine take up in the age group:

Making the same mistake that people make when they see something “trending” on Twitter, much of the commentary fused personal anecdote (“well me and all my mates were in the queue”) with early stats showing initial acceleration rather than overall proportion volume.

This little analysis from Sky News explains it all pretty clearly. At the time of writing in England about two in five people aged 18-29 have still not had their first jab, but in the same amount of time after 40-49 year olds had been offered theirs, only a quarter had not had their first dose.

For those that wanted it, the pent up demand was very pent up. For those that didn’t, that view seems to have hardened too. Views harden over time. What a surprise!

The unexpected hits you between the eyes

One of the recurring themes in the pandemic and the way it’s been being handled has been this constant appearance of issues that were identified much earlier and did not need one of Classic Dom’s superforecaster weirdos to predict – a particular feature of higher education and student matters given the tentpoles of the structure of the academic year. Oh look! Students are moving house. Oh look! They’re mixing in halls. Oh look! We’ve got to get them home. And so on.

It’s one of the things I’ll be keeping a close eye on in the public enquiry. Part of me forgave the “only deal with the issues in the both important and urgent box” approach at first, but this is a pandemic, not Jim Dickinson’s to do list.

It’s an approach that has become harder to forgive as every week ticked on – particularly because you get the sense that “important + urgent” is less a disaster management strategy, and more about deep levels of essay-crisis procrastination at the head of the fish that’s rotting.

That’s then all mixed with a Treasury belief that unless and until it shows up in the focus groups of over-65s that elected the government, it shouldn’t have any money spent on it, and a suspicion that “importance” and “urgency” have been judgements on the government’s electoral mortality rather than that of the nation.

What I won’t believe is that these things just weren’t spotted earlier. I’ve written too many words on this site over the last 16 months about the things that are obviously about to happen that we don’t seem to be doing anything about, and I’m even prepared to give (at least some of) the civil servants the benefit of the doubt.

As far back as March 2020 the Coronavirus Bill’s impact assessment was worried about “large numbers of students travelling and spreading the virus” in halls, for example. The whole of the UK then managed to not tackle those risks by letting the virus run rampant through halls, or locked down bubbles within them and wrecked the mental health of occupants – and in many cases both. All with no formal review or “lessons learned” or apology from what I can make out from anyone.

And now we leave it until August 2021 to have the debate about vaccine passports in halls? Amazing.

It’s never too late

Down at the conspiracy theory end of opinion, as well as “terrible planning and awful infrastructure”, there’s a couple of alts to the theories on why we’re only working out how to get the young to get jabbed now.

This bit of YouGov polling emerged on Friday 23rd July, and the story on the PM “raging” emerged for the following Sunday papers. If you think the entirety of No.10 is still running on “referendum campaigning not actual governing” mode, you’ll see the link.

And given case numbers were still hurtling up all last week, plenty of people would argue that it’s fairly convenient to frame the blame on the young as insurance for a delay to restrictions easing, or the imposition of new ones:

The most recent case rate data from Public Health England (PHE) shows that infections are highest in those aged 20 to 29, with 614 cases per 100,000 people compared to just 27.9 per 100,000 in the over-80s. It means the very people who are driving the pandemic are taking the least responsibility in stopping it.

We don’t know what proportion of current refuseniks are the sort that might be at or applying to go to university, and even that would be an unhelpfully blunt finding in the field of public health messaging. But in early April, amid general concern about polling predicting poor vaccine uptake among the young, Savanta ComRes for UEL surveyed 1,020 UK university students and we got plenty of clues.

The numbers gave us a clear sense of which students to target – there were big differences by characteristics. Almost half said they would be more likely to get the vaccine if they were invited to do so at their university campus – a finding that was fairly consistent across gender, mode, region, level, domicile and ethnicity. 60 per cent of students supported making vaccination compulsory to access in-person teaching, with 22 per cent opposed – although for Black students support for that measure fell to 47 per cent with 26 per cent opposed.

There was less support for vaccination as a condition of accessing shared accommodation – that ran at 55 per cent approve and 28 per cent opposed. And there was a similar split on making vaccination a condition of access to social events.

That was four months ago. Maybe lots has been done behind the scenes since then – but it doesn’t feel like it. And if it’s true that the prime minister is said to have been “raging” about low uptake among the young, why wasn’t he “raging” about it in April?

Michael Gove says people that aren’t getting the jab are “selfish”. But if you stage “freedom day” before everyone’s double jabbed, a chunk of the people not vaccinated by then sadly don’t think “they don’t care about us” – they instead think “well given they do care about us, we can’t be at risk” and/or “well stuff the old, they’re on flights to Spain”.

Maybe politics is driving it all, and maybe politics is at least in the mix. In any event, we are where we are – and it remains important to get jabs into student arms. So what might make the difference?

Summer breeze makes me feel fine

I’m lucky enough to get to spend much of my summer with incoming student officers from students’ unions, where a staple of the material is to consider the best approaches for influencing collective behaviour.

Authoritarian approaches for everything from preventing cheating to sports club initiations are always in the mix – but student leaders will tell you that where there’s a suspicion that the threat won’t lead to a real punishment, and where there there’s a generational debate about whether the “offence” is really a problem, they don’t work. See cannabis.

And if you threaten and don’t go through with it – revealing it was an empty threat – you further destroy your already shallow reservoir of trust amongst young people.

That leaves us with two other alternatives. You can educate – both on the risks of the vaccine and the impacts on others if we don’t take it – and you can incentivise. How galling then that while we were having a silly row about campuses reopening for a fortnight for a fortnight in May, Joe Biden was launching the Covid-19 College Vaccine Challenge.

There’s three components:

  1. Engage every student, faculty, and staff member: Make sure every member of your campus community knows they are eligible for a vaccine and has resources to find one.
  2. Organize your college community: Lead the way by identifying champions for vaccine efforts across campus and implementing a plan to get as many members of your college community vaccinated as possible.
  3. Deliver vaccine access for all: Meet your community where it is: bring vaccines on-site, and make it easy for students, staff, and faculty to get vaccinated at sites nearby them this summer.

Some of it involves students signing up to influence others (like universities do now to get them to enrol). Some involves resources and educational materials aimed at students. It’s partly about vaccine centres on campus (although barrier removal alone doesn’t actually motivate), and some of it is about funding so that freebies or lotteries can be run locally. And yes, there’s bits of authoritarian mandate in the mix – but fronted by states or universities themselves and so much more credible.

But the tone is right, and there’s at least a mix.

Right. What’s next?

So what should happen now here in the UK? First we need some better intel on students, sharpish. I’ve got a couple of working theories we could test. One is that there’s a lot of anxiety out there among students generally (that’s less a theory and more a verifiable fact) and that will impact getting it for many. The second is that we know that lots of students will do / say / be things they wouldn’t at home – a more pronounced effect for those living away from home but not exclusive to them. So anti-vax families won’t help, but September will.

Plus we know from the UEL research that trust in government and having agency over raising questions about it is the vaccine a major issue, one that’s more easily solvable when you don’t have Boris making idle threats.

The anti-vaxxers are loud as ever. But that UEL study also told us that 40 per cent of students said they would feel uncomfortable interacting with students and staff at their university that have not had the vaccine. If I was a parent or moving into halls personally I’d be minded to ask why I’m being expected to mix in close proximity with so many potentially unvaccinated or partially vaccinated people. It’s just if not more important to have an answer for people like me and those that are immunocompromised than it is for the cranks who think the vaccine installs a Bill Gates chip into their 5G enabled legs.

I still think it’s a tricky position to be saying “we encourage all students to get double jabbed” when many don’t have the time to do so, and as I type, even the belated JCVI “within three months of their 18th birthday” thing isn’t actually universally rolling out yet. A minor delay to the major migration event would seem sensible, but presumably the sector needs a nudge from DfE for insurance or something. We’re also still without a solution for Scottish 17 year old first years, and without a meaningful solution for international students (“I’ve had dose 1 of Sputnik. What now?”).

None of these things should be beyond us – and given we’re about to embark on the great migration into 100% occupied halls again, we should get them sorted before the risks of another “super-seeding” event involving a variant crystallise just as the weather turns in the autumn.

Overall, it feels both trite and utterly futile to be saying this – but (yet) again, what’s needed on vaccine take up is what’s been needed for every other slice of the pandemic – some actual co-production with students and the sector, some collaboration and coordination between universities and government, and some money.

I don’t know which grown-ups are to blame for repeatedly ending up here. It could be the politicians, it could be VCs, it could be civil servants, it could be the scientists, it could be the libertarians, and it could be the press barons. But who cares? When polling tells us that the young don’t feel especially proud to be British, maybe it’s not indoctrination by Marxist lecturers after all. Maybe it’s the fact that our leaders can’t seem to muster the basics of a decent positive relationship with them and default instead to demonisation and threats when the lack of thought or concern catches up with them. Just a thought.

One response to “Why do we hate the students we’re trying to motivate?

  1. Whilst I find the passport idea offensively close to an enforced I.D. card, ihre Papiere bitte is a phrase many seem more than happy to give traction over this (Bliar being a proponent should have been enough of a warning) I don’t think the sector can afford not to support it. UK students being double pricked will help protect both them and others, moreover international students are likely to have been vaccinated, and will report back any failure of UK Universities to protect them by not insisting UK students are double pricked to potential future students and their home governments, can we as a sector live without that future income?

    As a student proving you’ve been double pricked should be essential for access to Student Union bars and clubs not just lectures, the night-life entertainment industry may not like it much either, but ‘The Health and Safety at Work etc Act 1974’ and subsequent legislation means employers have a duty to protect not just their workers but ‘the public’ (other students) as well, vicarious liability may well be the route the ‘no-win-no-fee’ vultures take, can we afford that?

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